I wish to respond to Ed Koster’s guest commentary “Descent Into a Pickle” published in the Outlook’s July 8, 2013 edition on the state of confessional authority following the 220th General Assembly. Let my response here also correct prior commentaries on this issue.
I respectfully disagree with Ed’s or anyone else’s characterization that the parliamentary ruling the 220th General Assembly made last summer regarding the report from the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Same-Gender Marriage somehow put the PC(USA) in a constitutional “pickle” and that somehow we are left without confessional authority. Confessional authority is still intact, our confessions are still operative.
Let’s be clear on what happened at the Assembly and the consequence of that ruling. Before the Assembly Committee on Civil Unions and Same-Gender Marriage presented its report and recommendations, along with the accompanying minority report, teaching elder commissioner James Goodloe raised a parliamentary point of order that the Committee’s report and recommendations were out of order, that the Assembly cannot consider the report because the committee’s recommendations proposed to amend the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order, or proposed to approve an authoritative interpretation on that same section in the Directory. Commissioner Goodloe raised the point that amending the Book of Order without a corresponding amendment to all relevant sections regarding marriage in the Book of Confessions would pit one part of the constitution (the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order) with the other (Book of Confessions). Note that Commissioner Goodloe’s point of order was raised prior to any debate on the Committee’s report. The immediate result of Commissioner Goodloe’s point of order would have been to prevent the Assembly from considering the report of the Assembly Committee and the accompanying recommendations. His point of order was to the constitutionality of a report that was being brought to the floor. His point of order was not to any action of the Assembly because the Assembly had not yet acted on the report, let alone debated it.
I asked the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) to advise me and the Assembly, as is required when questions related to the constitution are raised. Teaching elder Paul Hooker, then chair of the ACC, described for the Assembly his understanding that the Constitution’s two parts—the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order—are distinct parts that are related, that it is possible for one part of the constitution to appear to be in conflict with the other, and that the varied perspectives and contexts of the 11 confessional, catechetical, and creedal statements in the Book of Confessions express the Reformed tradition’s distinctive character of holding in tension perspectives arising from particular contexts in particular circumstances while united in our common faith in the triune God. Note, that advice was offered by Mr. Hooker on behalf of the ACC on the point of order. The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly concurred with that opinion. In toto, the ACC’s advice and the Stated Clerk’s advice were that the point of order should not be sustained.
The ACC’s advice was correct in saying that the Constitution has distinct-but-related parts. Our Constitution is not like American jurisprudence, where recent case law trumps or vitiates past case law. The Brief Statement of Faith and the Confession of 1967 affirm the ordination of women, in sync with the practice codified with the Book of Order. However, the actual approval of women’s ordination predated those confessional changes by decades in spite of the presence of language in the Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 5.150) that limits the ordained offices to only men and, hence, placed the Constitution in tension with itself. And even with the language of BSF and C-67, they remain to this day in tension with SVC right within the Book of Confessions itself.
The Constitution is also in tension with itself on matters such as its theology of the sacraments.
Mr. Koster and others cannot have it both ways in calling for absolute uniformity in every jot and tittle of the Constitution. The distinctive character of the Reformed tradition has always been to live within the tension of authority and freedom, trusting in the sovereignty of God to hold the unity of the Church where there is perceptual contradiction and tension.
I was obligated at that point to make a ruling on the point of order. My ruling was on the point of order of Mr. Goodloe, not on the advice given. There have been many commentaries about the ACC’s position and advice. The ruling I made and which the General Assembly subsequently sustained, was on the point of order itself, not on the rationale.
By not sustaining Mr. Goodloe’s point of order, the General Assembly deemed constitutional its prerogrative to consider the Committee’s report. The Assembly retained its constitutional right to receive the report, debate it, amend it, and vote upon it.
If for argument’s sake there had been an overture asking to amend the Directory for Worship to increase the number of sacraments from two (baptism and Lord’s Supper) to seven as it is with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, would it be constitutional to consider such an overture, even as our Book of Confessions is clear that the Reformed tradition recognizes two and only two sacraments? That’s the question that was before the Assembly at the time that Mr. Goodloe’s point of order was propounded. Is it constitutional for the Assembly to consider a report, a report with recommendations that might potentially present an “unconstitutional” situation whereby one section of the Book of Order might potentially be in contradiction with the Book of Confessions?
The General Assembly was correct in making its ruling. It retained its right to consider the report, as it would be within its prerogative, if it chose to exercise it, to consider an overture to increase the sacraments to seven, or whatever might be the case.
If for argument’s sake again, if the report’s recommendation for a constitutional amendment to re-define marriage as it current exists in the Directory for Worship or the proposed Authoritative Interpretation had been approved, it would have been within Mr. Goodloe’s right or any commissioner’s right for that matter, to raise a constitutional point of order as provided by Standing Rule F.5.d of the Manual of the 220th General Assembly which states:
When the General Assembly is in plenary session, questions that touch upon
constitutional matters, including rulings on questions of order involving constitutional matters requested by the Moderator, shall be handled by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. These questions shall be referred in writing by the Moderator to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which shall consider each matter referred and make recommendations directly to the General Assembly through the Moderator.
Note that this particular constitutional point of order would not be on whether to deliberate on a question, as was Mr. Goodloe’s. This constitutional point of order would have followed final disposition of the question, after the Committee’s report was debated, amended, and voted upon. The debate that would ensue would be on the constitutional merits of a redefinition of marriage in the Directory for Worship versus the Book of Confessions’ understanding of marriage.
Thus, there is no constitutional quandary, at the moment. And we certainly are not in a pickle, as Mr. Koster describes. Far from it. We are right where we were prior to the 220th General Assembly. Confessional authority is still intact. The confessions are intact.
Lastly, let me respond to Mr. Koster’s article where he opens by stating: “The moderator of the General Assembly has recently written that the confessions of the church are effectively without authority.” (p.17). That may be Mr. Koster’s take on what I said, but that’s a mischaracterization of what I said and of what the General Assembly did. See my comments here.
My statement expresses and reflects the “Confessional Nature of the Church Report,” which is one of the two prefatory documents in the Book of Confessions. Look especially at section II.C of that Report, pages xviii to xx. The bulk of my statement is a restatement of the principles expressed in that Report, particularly the Reformed distinctive of holding in tension freedom and authority.
It is true that the Book of Confessions cannot prevent, pre-empt nor veto consideration by a General Assembly of an overture, resolution, or report. It’s not an automatic action. The General Assembly (as with sessions, presbyteries and synods), as a governing council of duly elected and commissioned elders and advisory delegates, must discern the will and mind of Christ in community, applying Scripture, the confessions, our theological heritage, prayer, worship, and debate in the discussions; that is the way we in the Reformed tradition do things.
What was before the 220th General Assembly last summer was a question not on the constitutionality of a proposed re-definition of marriage in the Book of Order versus the Book of Confessions; the question to which the Assembly ruled was whether it had the right to consider that question – to debate it, to amend it, to pray about it, to vote upon it. The constitutionality question may very well have to be considered by the 221st General Assembly next year or in successive assemblies, but that charge cannot be lodged against the 220th General Assembly, nor placed on the moderator’s doorstep.
-The Rev. Dr. Neal D. Presa, Ph.D.
Moderator, 220th General Assembly (2012)